Four days in a row of good eats

Includes: Cafe Helios, Raleigh, NC; Saffron, Chapel Hill, NC; Dos Taquitos Centro, Raleigh, NC; Piola, Raleigh, NC; and more   

I’ve just finished enjoying four — count ’em, four — consecutive days of wondrous food! Beer dinner, Indian, Mexican, Italian. Yay, Terry’s life!

Photos, however, ummm … unfortunately they won’t reflect the true glory of my mid-November feasting. The lighting was too low in one venue and I forgot my camera at two dining tables. My sweet cousin Kat took photos for me on her iPhone at one locale but I haven’t received them yet. So if those photos do indeed show up I’ll publish them in arrears. (Maybe if she sees this post it will spur her to take action!) See iPhone photo below. Thanks, Kat!

Fullsteam beer dinner at Cafe Helios — Thursday, Nov. 11

What a fun and delicious evening! But alas, this was the venue with too-low lighting, so my photos are less than stellar. The ones without flash are not very vibrant — and the ones with are washed out. Sorry.

I didn’t even know about this dinner until my daughter’s former college roommate Jenna invited me the day before it took place. (Her own attendance was dicey, as she was trying to earn a free pass by selling four tickets.) Even though it was a “school night” and I had to be at a video shoot at 6 the next morning I accepted — 5 courses from an inventive young chef and 5 local beers for $40. An offer too good to refuse.

Boy, am I glad I went. I couldn’t entice any friends to come with, but I’ve never been intimidated to dine, travel or do just about anything else on my own. And it worked out just fine. Jenna was able to join me after all, and in addition to her my other table companions were a nice man named Bo who, along with his wife (she didn’t come to the dinner until dessert was served), is a regular at Cafe Helios, and Sean Wilson, the “Chief Executive Optimist” at Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery.

Fullsteam — as I learned Thursday night — focuses on brewing beer with distinct Southern personalities, using local organic ingredients as much as possible (which is almost always). Throughout the evening we enjoyed apours from both their “radical Southern” Plow to Pint group and the simpler, more traditional Workers’ Compensation lineup. Each time we were served another beer Sean explained details about what we were drinking and how and why it was created. Helios Chef Greg Gettles did the same regarding the food.

I ordered the vegetarian version of dinner, and here’s what I got …

First course was crostini topped with roasted peppers that had been cooked with shallots and served in a smoked paprika and red ale beurre blanc — if I got the description right. (By the way, smoked paprika is one of my favorite spices of all time, along with cumin and sage. Try making a potato-onion hash with smoked paprika, topped with a poached egg. Yum.) This was served with Fullsteam’s Jerk beer, a Jamaican-influenced red ale aged on peppers.  Delicious.

Second course was butternut squash soup. Lately, it seems to be on every menu that takes advantage of local, seasonal ingredients, but I’m sure not complaining! Helios’ version was thick and rich and delectable. And it was paired perfectly with Fullsteam’s Hogwash Porter, which is smoked over Hickory wood. It wasn’t as sharply smokey as the German smoked beers I’ve had (and loved), but fantastic all the same. In fact, it was unique and interesting and would probably appeal to more people than its German cousins, I believe. And drunk alongside something like this soup (or barbecue, as Sean said it can also be served with) it was perfect.

Third course was a local mixed greens salad that I’m proud to say was provided by my friends Hana and Matt of New Grass Gardens (check them out on Facebook). Chef Greg enthused several times about these being the best salad greens he’s ever tasted, and I concur. The salad was topped off with an apple cider and whole grain mustard vinaigrette, whipped goat cheese and apple and radish slivers. The beer was Carver sweet potato amber lager — minus the cloying spices that normally accompany sweet potatoes or pumpkin. (Did you know that NC is the country’s top sweet potato producer?)

Fourth course — My entree was huge, wonderful slices of shitake mushrooms cooked with fennel, pumpkin seeds and I-can’t-remember-what-else. (Yes, indeedy, four beers in and my brain was getting kind of mushy.) Carolina Common lager accompanied. (Sean said this beer features mint and biscuit elements, which of course I could taste once they’d been suggested. I’m very impressionable when it comes to alcohol nuances as pointed out by experts!)

Fifth course — The final gem of the evening was Kim Hammer’s take on Momofuku’s Crack Pie. Kim owns bittycakes, which I’ve been hearing about for ages. Especially the cupcakes. Seeing as how I’m a cupcake freak I can’t believe I haven’t had them yet. (I’m partial to mini cupcakes by Audra’s Cakes and Creations. Wow. Perfect little one-bite delicacies made with pure, rich ingredients.) After tasting Kim’s Full Moon Pie I’m eager to try out her cupcakes.

I didn’t get enough info to try to replicate the recipe — especially in my beer-addled state — but the crust was oatmeal cookie with bittersweet chocolate, the pie had lots and lots of egg yolks and other ingredients that Kim promised would make my doctor shudder, the drizzle was caramel sauce highlighted with lavender honey, and pumpkin lager was in there somewhere. It was so sweet and so rich. But not the kind of flavorless, makes-your-teeth-hurt sweet that characterizes some desserts. I ate every single bite.

The final beer was Working Man’s Lunch Stout. Apparently the working man’s lunch in the South is RC Cola and a Moon Pie, so those are the influences of this yummy stout. I’m a huge stout and chocolate fan (a brownie and a Guinness is my favorite taste combo) so I adored this one.

All together it was a wonderful evening. I’m ready to hang out more at Helios and eat more of their delicious creations (heretofore I’ve been heavy on their coffee but light on their food) and join my new beer dinner friends at Fullsteam’s tavern.

Innovative Indian fare at Saffron in Chapel Hill — Friday, Nov. 12

Warning: This was the evening I forgot my camera! But the restaurant was so good I must include it and recommend that you go there post-haste.

I had eaten at the Saffron in Morrisville a few times, and after looking at the Chapel Hill Saffron’s menu I wondered if they were somehow related. Both feature unusual, contemporary twists on Indian favorites, and a wide variety of vegetarian choices. I love Indian food and most Indian restaurants have plenty of veg options, but it’s nice to go beyond palak paneer, vegetable jalfrezi,  and baingan bharta.

I was right. If I understood the hostess correctly, the guy who used to own Morrisville’s Saffron sold it and opened the Chapel Hill Saffron.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is the decor. It’s pretty stunning, yet very tasteful (unlike some visually arresting Indian places, which tend to lean a bit toward the gaudy side).

We shared the Tandoori Vegetable Khazana — a sampler of four tandoori appetizers. The samosas weren’t the typical fried pyramids that I usually suspect of coming from the same freezer box. These were wrapped like cute little purses, and were softer and tastier than most samosas. My favorites were the Paneer Tikka Saslic (menu says: Indian cheese cooked in the tandoori clay oven then grilled and served with red and green bell peppers) and the Subz Galouti Kebab (spicy veggie patties).

I wish, wish, wish I could remember what my cousin ordered. (I’ve e-mailed her to ask, but no answer yet. Yes, this is the same cousin who hasn’t sent the photos. But I still love her!)

My entree was second best, and I do remember what it was. The Saffron Aloo Anari was the restaurant’s version of a twice-baked potato, as proclaimed on the menu. It was potatoes stuffed with raisins, cashews and spices served in a very tangy (almost tart) pomegranate tomato sauce. Besides being delicious, it was also humorous. (And tell me: Who among us gets to eat enough funny food?!) In the presentation, the potatoes were standing on end like little slope-topped columns, their cores filled with the dark stuffing. They looked just like huge marrow bones ready for sucking — which made me laugh since they were a vegetarian entree.

Hopefully pictures will come soon.

Amazing Mexican and really good pizza — Saturday, Nov. 13

Saturday morning mom and I met friends at Dos Taquitos Centro in downtown Raleigh. They’ve recently started serving a Saturday brunch (a refreshing alternative to Sunday brunches, which are often so crowded).


Mom and I shared the two dishes our server said were best: Chilaquiles con Huevos Ahogados and Calentado. The chilaquiles was creamy salsa verde poured over corn tortilla triangles and topped with poached eggs. Spicy and good. The calentado was rice and beans, sweet fried plantains and a fried egg. Ummmmm… I must say my passion fruit mimosa was beautiful and delicious, too.

If you haven’t been to Dos Taquitos Centro yet, go soon. IMHO it’s some of the consistently best, most innovative, yet not pretentious Mexican in the Triangle (besides taco trucks of course). It’s very different from the North Raleigh Dos Taquitos. I like it best for lunch and brunch.

Okay, in my last post I forgot to include one recently discovered chain I like. Piola is a based-in-Italy chain that offers pastas, salads and more but is really special because of its pizzas. Very thin but soft (just like I had in Italy) crust with high-quality, authentic ingredients. I’ve been a number of times.

My mom and I had drinks and mouth-watering bruschetta at the Chapel Hill Piola before we went to Saffron on Friday night. She liked it so much we went with my uncle and aunt to the Raleigh one on Saturday night.

The pizza offerings are mind-boggling. It’s very difficult to choose. On Saturday Mom and I shared the Sao Paolo, which was Catupiry cheese, tomato sauce and mozarella — with arugula we added at the table. Catupiry is a creamy brazilian cheese. When baked on a pizza it kind of makes soft little bubble domes. My uncle’s calzone was very large and very tasty. My aunt bombed by ordering a pizza with smoked salmon on it. (Well, it wasn’t a total bomb. It was okay for about two bites’ worth …)

And the Sgroppino al Limone. YOU MUST DRINK ONE! I’ve looked up various recipes, and most include two or more of the following ingredients: lemon sorbet, lemon ice cream, vodka, limoncello, prosecco.

I look forward to my next visit. Maybe a calzone. Or maybe I’ll go on the monthly all-you-can-eat gnocchi night.

Breakfast of Champions: more Indian food — Sunday, Nov. 14

I knew that my Cary Indian family friends would do something special since my mom was with me when I went to pick up their kids for an outing. We’d already eaten a decadent breakfast (German cheese bread and Sweet 16 donuts — those little powdered sugar ones from the grocery store — sliced in half, spread with butter and baked in the oven). But we couldn’t say no when the Mrs. quickly whipped up fresh dosas (a type of thin Indian pancake) she served with two kinds of chutney, sambar (a veg soup) and chai. Surprise breakfast #2! No pictures. But a great way to end the four-day food fest.

About atarheeltastes

I'm a passionate foodie who started this "temporary" blog during a gustatory tour of Tuscany. I decided to continue, since I love to dream about, plan for, prepare, eat and write about food!
This entry was posted in Raleigh, NC, Restaurants, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Four days in a row of good eats

  1. Cousin says:

    Consider me duly chastised. Maybe I just wanted you to talk about me on the internet! The dish I had is Nargisi Kofta. I will say, having taken the leftovers home (of my dish and your dish), they weren’t as good reheated the next day, but that is hardly a reason not to order them in the first place. That good.

  2. Pingback: first-time beer dinner with fullsteam | cafe helios

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